An election worker in Bogotá. (AP)

An election worker in Bogotá. (AP)

Explainer: Who's Who in Colombia's 2022 Presidential Race

By Holly K. Sonneland and Hope Wilkinson

A field of largely centrist candidates will have an electoral test in March, two months before the first-round presidential vote.

Besides the pandemic and related economic slump facing many countries, Colombia also finds itself dealing with problems related to Venezuela, regional migration, and trafficking routes. With so many issues bubbling, the race to replace Iván Duque is heating up quickly—and early. The country’s 2022 presidential votes officially take place in May with a potential June runoff, but a vote two months earlier could be more decisive: the March 13 interparty consultations. The consultations function as primaries between candidates from similar areas of the political spectrum. In 2018, there were two: one for left-wing candidates, won by Gustavo Petro, and a second for conservatives, won by Duque. In 2022, there will likely be a third one for candidates who could be considered centrists.

The 2018 race was a divisive one, and, in a country with a history of political violence, Colombian voters have ample reason to be wary of the polarization. Since those elections, 4 million young Colombians have gained the right to vote, a more than 10 percent boost to the voter rolls. Polling from June indicates a trend toward the center, especially among those younger voters.

Along with the presidential consultations, Colombians will also vote for legislators on March 13, and that vote will serve as an indication of which candidates will have popular backing heading into the presidential contest. Political groups in Colombia start out as movements, and then once they demonstrate sufficient popular support, the national electoral body officially recognizes them as a political party. Candidates who represent a movement must run under the banner of a coalition. Once a party, candidates can run on the party’s own ticket and also field legislative candidates. The Democratic Center currently heads the governing coalition in both national legislative bodies.

The first-round presidential election takes place May 29, with a runoff on June 19 if no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote. Presidents in Colombia are limited to one, four-year term. The runner-up in the presidential race gets a seat in the Senate while his or her running mate earns a seat in the House of Representatives.

Below we highlight some of the early candidates contesting the various consultations. Given that the field will evolve as candidates gain name recognition and others join and drop out, we’ve included a chart on how favorably voters see each figure.

This piece was originally published October 4 and is updated as the race evolves.

David Barguil

Conservative Party

On October 6, the Conservative Party nominated Barguil, 40, as its presidential candidate. Educated in international relations and public management, Barguil won election to the House of Representatives representing Córdoba at the age of 28 in 2010. He held this position for eight years, after which he was elected to the Senate. He also served as a Conservative Party national official for six years.

While Barguil’s campaign platform is still in development, throughout his political career he has focused on banking abuses. As a senator, he created five laws benefitting bank users, including a law on early payments of credit and a law on transparent prices. In 2019, he authored the Clean Slate Law, an economic measure that expands access to credit for millions of Colombian citizens, which went into effect in August 2021.

On September 22, the Supreme Court opened a preliminary investigation into the alleged fabrication of medical disabilities that resulted in Barguil’s several absences from Congress during his time as a representative. With 73 absences over the four-year period, Barguil had the poorest attendance record among congresspeople that session.

María Fernanda Cabal

Democratic Center

Cabal, 57, has been a senator since 2018 after winning election to the House in 2014 on the Democratic Center’s ticket. Before that, she served for five years as president of the Colombian Ranchers’ Federation, known as Fedegan, and for two years as the director of international affairs in the Attorney General’s office during the Uribe administration. In 2019, she got in a tussle with The New York Times after suggesting, without evidence, that one of its journalists had been paid by the FARC for favorable coverage. Hailing from Cali, she and her husband both served as the president of Fedegan. Since she joined the Senate, she’s filed multiple motions to amend the 2011 Victims and Land Restitution Law, which aims to restore land titles to people displaced since 1991. Besides adding bureaucratic and legal complexity to the process, Cabal’s proposals have aimed to shift the burden of proof from current landowners needing to demonstrate they legally acquired lands to the dispossessed showing they at one time owned them.

Democratic Center has said it will field only one candidate in the consultation on the right. Cabal is on a quest to draw a distinction between herself and her fellow party members, calling many of them unknowns and ineffective.

Sergio Fajardo

Citizen Agreement

After missing the 2018 runoff by less than 2 points, mathematician and politician Fajardo, 65, is redoubling his efforts to be the center’s candidate in the 2022 election, this time on the ticket of the Citizen Agreement movement that he founded in 1999. Fajardo was the mayor of Medellín from 2004 to 2007 and the governor of Antioquia from 2012 to 2015. Citizen Agreement is part of the Hope Coalition.

In the 2018 campaign, Fajardo was positioned as a centrist focused on issues such as improving education and environmental reform. His 2022 campaign emphasizes improving education standards, particularly as a way to accelerate economic recovery. He encourages lowering the cost of university tuition in order to increase enrollment and accessibility. His platform also stresses the need to improve employment rates among youth and women. To achieve this, he proposes an emergency employment program using national funding to create jobs in fields including social services, construction, and more.

He faces embezzlement charges before the Supreme Court for allowing some contracts to be signed in U.S. dollars to the benefit of third parties while he was governor.

Juan Manuel Galán

New Liberalism

Galán, 49, is one of the most prominent children of political figures assassinated during the violence of the 1980s and 1990s in Colombia. His father, Luis Carlos, was the presidential front runner when the Medellín cartel killed him in 1989 during a campaign rally. At the time, Juan Manuel was 17. After moving abroad and studying in Paris and Washington, he returned to Bogotá to get into politics. Following disagreements within the New Liberalism party with some of his father’s associates over how they were using his father’s image, he endorsed the Conservative candidate Andrés Pastrana in 1998 and later served in his administration.

He became a senator for the Liberal Party in 2006, where he remained through 2018. For the 2022 race, he and his brother Carlos Fernando, a Bogotá city councilman, revived New Liberalism, which the Constitutional Court granted party status in August.

A focal part of his campaign is ending the war on drugs by including more state presence in rural areas both militarily and economically in order to “completely displace criminal organizations” and stopping aerial fumigation of coca crops. In 2016, he introduced the legislation that legalized medical marijuana in Colombia, and he supports further regulation of other drugs as a way to cut the legs off of drug traffickers’ business. After 12 years in Congress, he also has several proposals for how to make legislating more transparent and less reliant on politicking.

Alejandro Gaviria

Gaviria, 55, is an academic, author, and policymaker who’s running for elected office for the first time under the banner of the Colombia Has a Future movement. He intends to compete in the center’s consultation. Gaviria’s early platform covers improving security, labor rights, health equity, childcare, and rural development, among other issues. He also calls the climate crisis the top medium-term challenge and sees the state’s redistributive role as “fundamental,” while also calling free enterprise and market economics “essential” for general well-being.

A civil engineer and economist by training, Gaviria was the dean of the University of the Andes’ Economics Department for six years before Juan Manuel Santos tapped him to be his health minister, a position he held from 2014 to 2018. After that, he returned to the university, where he headed its Center for Sustainable Development Goals for Latin America and was later elected president.

Prior to academia, he was a subdirector in the National Planning Department during the Uribe administration, and earlier in his career he had stints as an economist and researcher for the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank, Fedesarrollo, the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation, and a Medellín-based insurance company.

While he was health minister, he oversaw the regulation and implementation of Galán’s bill legalizing medical marijuana. A year later he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of cancer known to be caused by aerial fumigation of coca crops, a practice he opposes. He used marijuana to manage his symptoms and side effects of chemotherapy. Gaviria also is one of five Latin Americans to serve on the Lancet’s 28-member COVID-19 Commission, and he sits on the editorial board of El Espectador. In a country where 80 percent of the population identifies with some branch of Christianity, Gaviria identifies variously as an atheist and humanist.

Federico "Fico" Gutiérrez

We Believe Colombia

A civil engineer by training, Gutiérrez, 46, first served on the Medellín city council from 2004 to 2011 before narrowly edging out the Democratic Center’s candidate to win the city’s mayoral race in an upset in 2015. He’s running under the banner of his We Believe Colombia movement and would compete in the centrist consultation.

Rodolfo Hernández

Independent / Anticorruption League

An engineer and one-term mayor of Bucaramanga near the Venezuelan border, Hernández, 76, is running as an independent under the banner of the Anticorruption League. Hernández plans to self-finance his campaign and to avoid forming political alliances. His current polling at around fourth belies the fact he has the lowest name recognition among current candidates. The focal point of Hernández’s platform is corruption. His campaign slogan "Don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t betray" harkens to the Incan saying “Don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t be lazy" but with an anticorruption message swapped in.

In August, local outlet Vanguardia released audio, undated but recorded during the current campaign, in which Hernández requests payments from candidates who wish to run on the league’s 2022 ticket for representatives in the House. Besides asking up to a quarter of a million U.S. dollars for the top spot on the ticket’s congressional slate, Hernández also allegedly told would-be candidates he’d take a 10 percent cut of their salary should they be elected. Legal experts say the requests might have been inappropriate but not necessarily illegal as Hernández was not an elected official at the time he made them.

Gustavo Petro

Humane Colombia

Easily the candidate with the highest name recognition, Petro, 61, is an early frontrunner in the 2022 race and the left-leaning consultation is understood as his to lose. He’s running on the ticket for Humane Colombia, which he founded in 2011. Though he lost the 2018 runoff to Duque by 16 points,Petro received 8 million votes nationwide, a new high-water mark for Colombian politicians from the left. Humane Colombia won an important ruling when, on September 16, the Constitutional Court— citing those 8 million votes as evidence of sufficient popular support—overturned a national electoral body decision to deny it political party status. Along with name recognition, Petro also has one of the highest disapproval ratings among current candidates. Four years ago, his support in polls largely plateaued after the March consultation.

Petro has stayed squarely in the spotlight since 2018, thanks to his automatic seat in the Senate as runner-up. A former M-19 guerrilla, he is a consistent mouthpiece for progressive politics in Colombia. On the flip side, his at times combative tone makes many uncomfortable. His style has arguably been more effective in the legislature than in executive roles. He was a representative in Colombia’s lower house from 1998–2006, then moved up to the Senate for a term until 2010. After that, he was mayor of Bogotá from 2012 to 2016,with the exception of one month in 2014 when he was temporarily removed from office for improperly privatizing some garbage services. It wasn’t the only rocky chapter to his tenure as the capital mayor, which saw high staff turnover.

While a representative, Petro presented information in 2005 that linked Uribe and his 2002 presidential campaign to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia paramilitary group. During the last four years, Petro’s anticorruption message has been bolstered by Uribe’s burgeoning legal troubles as the country’s special peace tribunals investigate the “false positives” scandal that took place during his presidency.

Chart: What do voters think of the candidates?